Fair Districts PA Coalition Making Our Vote Count

bias2The Philadelphia Jewish Voice, the League of Women Voters and other organizations across the state announced the formation of a new coalition called Fair Districts PA. The coalition’s purpose is to advocate for reform of Pennsylvania’s redistricting rules to make the process of drawing electoral districts impartial, transparent, and accountable.

Congressional and state legislative electoral maps are redrawn every ten years following the national census. In Pennsylvania, the process of drawing those maps is controlled almost entirely by state legislators, a conflict of interest that puts politicians in charge and takes away the rights of voters.

Some states, most notably Arizona and California, have reformed the process by establishing impartial citizen commissions and clear standards for how districts are to be drawn. The results have shown increased voter engagement and more competitive elections.

Fair District PA’s priorities include:

  • Assigning the redistricting power to an independent commission, of which neither the commissioners, nor members of their immediate families, may be government or political party officials.
  • Ensuring the transparency of the process and meaningful opportunities for public participation.
  • Establishing verifiable statistical standards for a fair election process.

[Read more…]

Voting Rights In the Wind?

How_to_Steal_an_Election_-_Gerrymandering.svgThe right to vote is a foundation of American democracy, along with freedom of speech and the press. When the Supreme Court speaks on the subject, or even just listens, it has an importance well beyond the seemingly minute legal details that the Justices can take up. On December 8 two voting rights cases came before the Court.

Voters are slotted into districts from which they choose their members of Congress and their state legislators. Although individual ballots are secret, today computers can tell us a lot about voting habits, and can redesign districts to shape the outcome of elections. Increasingly, elected officials know how to use this technology to choose their voters and assure their continuation in office.

One of the  two cases before the Court was the oral argument in Evenwel v. Abbott, in which Texas citizens complain that the number of registered voters varies widely between voting districts. They want the Court to require equal registration in each voting district, even if that results in widely different populations represented.  The second docket was Shapiro v. McManus, in which the Court unanimously decided that the challengers to a gerrymandered voting district in Maryland made out a case for a  three-judge trial court.

Historically the establishment of voting districts was a state legislative matter, a political matter that received very little attention from the Court.   As population moved and changed, often voting maps stayed the same, resulting in very large inequalities in representation.  Then in Baker v. Carr in 1962, the Court declared that unequal districting could be justiciable, and two years later declared that fair voting districts must have closely equal population. Since then, redistricting carried out every 10 years has focused on population equality.

Evenwel argued that population may be equal, but there are 50% more voters registered in his Texas district than the number of voters in some other districts.  Therefore he claimed that his vote has less weight than votes of those in the other districts. But is this a denial of equal protection under the Constitution?

History favors the present practice. The Constitution allocates congressional districts among the states in proportion to total population, not voter registration. Women and children were counted well before the 19th Amendment giving women the vote. The ignoble three-fifths compromise was based on the number of slaves, none of whom could vote. For the 60 years that we have had the need to equalize voting districts, population has been the measure.  Almost every state follows the same model in drawing the voting maps for the  state legislature as well.

The State of Texas argued for allowing states to continue to base districts on equalizing population. Counting voter registration, not population, would seem to exclude people who cannot vote from representation: immigrants who are not yet citizens, undocumented people, those who are less than 18 years old, as well as those who decline to vote for religious reasons.  Philosophically, legislators are expected to represent and serve all people, not just registered voters.

More practically, voter registration changes materially in ways that population usually does not. Before a presidential election, registration rises. If those registered decline to vote in “off year” elections, state law may strike them from the polls. Moreover, our reapportionment is based on the national decennial census which does not try to document voter registration, usually purely a matter of state law.

What appears clear is that Evenwel’s proposition, if adopted, would significantly shift voting power from urban to rural areas. So there is much riding on the Court’s decision, which is expected in June 2016.

Shapiro presents a seemingly narrow question but has the Court watchers sifting the tea leaves for some hint that the gerrymander problem may be seriously addressed in the future.

In a district that is gerrymandered to favor one party, voters of the other party may as well stay home. They cannot hope to alter the result in an election. In such districts, important decisions are made in the primary, but only the primary of the favored party. In most states a voter can take part only in the primary of the party in which he is registered.

An obvious inconsistency in the Court’s jurisprudence is the exacting attention to equalizing the population of districts, while allowing gerrymandered districts in which disfavored voters need not even go to the polls. It is estimated that 90% of congressional districts are “safe” seats in which one party has control; how many of these districts are intentionally gerrymandered is less clear, but it is surely an important number.

Federal law grants a person challenging the constitutionality of a voting district the right to a three-judge district court for trial. In this case individuals challenged their district on grounds that it was formed from two separate areas, linked by a “ribbon” and created solely to disenfranchise the voters in the smaller half of the barbell shape.

A single judge of the United States District Court for Maryland decided that the plaintiffs did not have a claim sufficient to go to trial, based on an unbroken line of rulings of the Supreme Court and lower federal courts that district maps — except in cases of racial discrimination — are non-justiciable. Reasoning that the plaintiffs had not shown a claim sufficient to even get to a trial, the single judge rejected the claim for a three-judge court and dismissed their case.

The Supreme Court reversed and remanded the case. Justice Antonin Scalia, usually in the vanguard in cases dismissing gerrymander claims, wrote the brief opinion ruling that the plaintiff voters’ claim against the barbell district could not be dismissed as “insubstantial.”

Alone, that ruling might itself be insubstantial. But Scalia chose to find support in Justice Anthony Kennedy’s concurring opinion in Vieth v. Jubelier in 2004. That case is the leading modern decision that election districts are political and non-justiciable.

In concurring with that decision, Justice Kennedy stated: “I would not foreclose all possibility of judicial relief [in a future case] if some limited and precise rationale were found to correct an established violation of the Constitution …” Justice Scalia wrote the opinion of the Court in Vieth, and included an extensive critique chiding Justice Kennedy’s “never say never approach.”  It seems that “never” may have arrived.

So should we hope that Justices Scalia and Kennedy have now discovered that some gerrymanders are “justiciable” and will join with the more liberal wing of the Court to grant voters relief in Shapiro or future cases? Stay tuned for more words from the Court.

Note: The author is chair of Common Cause of Pennsylvania, one of the nonprofit groups participating in briefs before the Supreme Court in these two cases.

American Democracy Challenged: Political Gridlock and What We Can Do About It

The Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) is pleased to host two renowned former Congressmen, Tom Davis (R -Virginia) and Martin Frost (D- Texas) for an in-depth examination of how partisanship has led to Congressional gridlock and what can be done to reverse the trend.

The program will take place on Sunday, November 8, at 2 p.m., at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 615 N. Broad St., Philadelphia.
Davis and Frost are the co-authors of the 2014 book, The Partisan Divided: Congress in Crisis which outlines a bipartisan approach to making Congress more responsive to the needs of the American people. Davis is the former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Frost served as Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Joining forces in an effort “to save Congress from itself,” Frost and Davis argue that the legislative branch is incapable of reforming itself without “a good kick in the seat from the American public.” Together, the two retired lawmakers have developed a common sense, bipartisan plan for making our Congress function again.

The program comes at a time when the leadership of the House remains in doubt and the agenda for the remainder of the 114th Congress’ term is uncertain.

Two weeks later, on November 22, also at 2 p.m. at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, JSPAN will sponsor panel discussions on campaign finance and redistricting/gerrymandering, two of the issues Davis and Frost cite as contributing to the gridlock and hyper partisanship. The panelists will explore how gerrymandering affects the value of each vote cast and therefore voter turnout, and the role money plays in politics, with special attention to local elections. Journalist and professor Dick Polman and State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-King of Prussia) are among the panelists scheduled.
Founded in 2003, JSPAN strives to advance progressive social policies on the critical issues of our time. JSPAN focuses a range of domestic policy issues such as: voting rights and election law, economic justice, race relations, church/state separation, gun violence, reproductive rights, public education, and more—all of which are affected by access to the political process.
We invite coverage of the event as well pre-publicity. Please contact George Stern to arrange interviews with the congressmen.
Event registration is free and can be accessed on the JSPAN website, www.jspan.org.

The Disappearing Middle Ground in US Politics

— by Bryan Schwartzman

A rare, borderline miraculous thing happened inside Congregation Rodeph Shalom: a Republican and a Democrat not only jointly identified a political problem, but also agreed upon a set of solutions. Perhaps the true miracle would be if any of their ideas are ever adopted by Congress.

Former U.S. Rep. Tom Davis (R-Virginia) and Martin Frost (D-Texas) — former political adversaries — are co-authors of the recently released work The Partisan Divide: Congress in Crisis. The two former pols addressed an audience of roughly 50 people at the synagogue in a November 8 program sponsored by JSPAN. (A number of organizations and synagogues served as community partners in promoting the event.)

They presented a compelling case that the two parties are being driven further and further apart. Today’s high levels of partisanship, they argued, make it exceedingly difficult for Congress to complete its routine work — such as raising the debt ceiling and passing a budget — let alone reach meaningful compromise on pressing issues such as immigration reform. Hinted at, but never stated outright, was the fear that — if left unchecked — partisanship might threaten to tear the fabric of constitutional democracy.

In his introduction of the speaker, author and historian Dwight David Eisenhower II – grandson of President Eisenhower and son-in-law of President Nixon – called it “the number one constitutional and political issue facing our country today. Call it political dysfunction, call it hyperpartisianship, call it the breakdown of Congress.”

middle_ground_imageThe program was the first part of a two part series called “American Democracy Challenged.” On November 22, JSPAN is hosting another program at Rodeph Shalom focusing on gerrymandering. Speakers will include State Sen. Mike Folmer (R-Lebanon) and State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-Upper Merion). The Philadelphia event came a week into the Speakership of U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) who is attempting to bring order to an unruly Republican caucus, and in the midst of an unruly presidential campaign that is defying expectations.

In his presentation, Davis attributed polarization and gridlock to three factors that have largely emerged over the past two decades: unfair redistricting, polarized media and out-of-control political financing.

“Although we have many philosophical differences, in terms of analyzing what went wrong, we share many of the same observations,” said Davis, referring to himself and Frost. “Basically, the middle has gone away.”

Davis, who served in Congress from 1994 to 2008, noted that in most congressional districts, “basically the only election that counts is the primary. The primary is what the members orient their time, rhetoric and voting records to. Primary voters represent an overly narrow slice of the electoral pie. They don’t reward compromise. They tend to punish it.”

Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District

Pennsylvania’s 7th congressional district.

Davis, who chaired the National Republican Congressional Campaign Committee between 1998 and 2002, argued that increasingly sophisticated data analytics have allowed state legislatures to make districts safer and less competitive than ever before. He cited Pennsylvania’s meandering 7th congressional district — held by Republican Pat Meehan — as an egregious example of a gerrymandered district. Davis also took aim at a popular target, partisan broadcast media and websites, claiming they proliferate a culture in which talking to the opposition is virtually unheard of. Then there is the series of events, from the passage of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance bill in 2002 to the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United, that has allowed wealthy individuals, unions and privately held corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to fund outside groups unconnected to candidates or political parties.

“The point in all this is that voters behave as if it were a parliamentary system, which it is not,” Davis said. “Instead of being the minority party, you are now the opposition party.”

Frost – only the second Jewish congressman in the history of the Lone Star State — presented a series of recommendations that the two have put forth in their book. Chief among them is the idea that Congress might mandate that non-partisan commissions, rather than state legislatures, control the congressional redistricting process. The goal would be to increase the number of competitive races and force candidates to pay attention to centrist voters who value pragmatism and compromise.

“We have a system now, where 80 percent of congressional districts are safe districts,” Frost said.

He also suggested several changes to current campaign finance laws that would require all groups that are spending money on elections to report that spending to the Federal Election Commission. He also suggested that all congressional primaries nationwide be held on the same date, to increase interest in House races and voter turnout. A higher turnout, Frost argued, would curb the influence of fringe groups.

heaven_sakeFollowing the formal presentation, the two former congressmen took a series of pointed questions from the audience. This reporter pointed out that, in the years following World War II, the parties were not necessarily aligned on ideological grounds and it was in fact a bipartisan alliance that for years blocked any advancement on the civil rights agenda. Is it such a bad thing for voters to know what parties stand for and base their vote upon it?

“There is nothing wrong with good, solid parties,” responded Davis:

The real problem today is that the fastest growing group of any electorate is independents. In some states, they are prohibited from participating in primaries, which is the only election that counts. The reality is, you have a system where independent voters are excluded from the process. It de-centers American politics.

In his response, Frost cited Master Of The Senate, the third volume in Robert Caro’s series about Lyndon Johnson. The book describes in great detail how LBJ, as Senate majority leader, wheeled and dealt with members of both parties to pass the first Federal Civil Rights legislation since Reconstruction. In the end, he managed to garner more Republican votes than Democratic votes.

“If Lyndon Johnson were in power today, could he do that?” said Frost. “Even as capable as he was, the answer is probably no, because the parties would not cooperate — even on something as important as civil rights.”

Redistricting Reform Bill Does Not Go Far Enough

Pennsylvania's 7th Congressional District

Pennsylvania’s 7th Congressional District

Pennsylvania is one of the most gerrymandered states in the country. Under Republican control, the Pennsylvania legislature crammed as many Democrats as possible into a small number of districts in the redistricting following the 2010 census. Accordingly, in the following Congressional election, despite winning the support of a majority of voters statewide, the Democrats lost a seat leaving themselves with only 5 seats while the Republicans retained 13 seats.
[Read more…]

American Democracy Challenged: Political Gridlock and What We Can Do About It

The Jewish Social Policy Action Network (JSPAN) is pleased to host two renowned former Congressmen, Tom Davis (R -Virginia) and Martin Frost (D- Texas) for an in-depth examination of how partisanship has led to Congressional gridlock and what can be done to reverse the trend.

The program will take place on Sunday, November 8, at 2 p.m., at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, 615 N. Broad St., Philadelphia.
Davis and Frost are the co-authors of the 2014 book, The Partisan Divided: Congress in Crisis which outlines a bipartisan approach to making Congress more responsive to the needs of the American people. Davis is the former chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Frost served as Chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and Chair of the House Democratic Caucus. Joining forces in an effort “to save Congress from itself,” Frost and Davis argue that the legislative branch is incapable of reforming itself without “a good kick in the seat from the American public.” Together, the two retired lawmakers have developed a common sense, bipartisan plan for making our Congress function again.

The program comes at a time when the leadership of the House remains in doubt and the agenda for the remainder of the 114th Congress’ term is uncertain.

Two weeks later, on November 22, also at 2 p.m. at Congregation Rodeph Shalom, JSPAN will sponsor panel discussions on campaign finance and redistricting/gerrymandering, two of the issues Davis and Frost cite as contributing to the gridlock and hyper partisanship. The panelists will explore how gerrymandering affects the value of each vote cast and therefore voter turnout, and the role money plays in politics, with special attention to local elections. Journalist and professor Dick Polman and State Sen. Daylin Leach (D-King of Prussia) are among the panelists scheduled.
Founded in 2003, JSPAN strives to advance progressive social policies on the critical issues of our time. JSPAN focuses a range of domestic policy issues such as: voting rights and election law, economic justice, race relations, church/state separation, gun violence, reproductive rights, public education, and more—all of which are affected by access to the political process.
We invite coverage of the event as well pre-publicity. Please contact George Stern to arrange interviews with the congressmen.
Event registration is free and can be accessed on the JSPAN website, www.jspan.org.

Allow Pennsylvanians to Vote and Count Their Votes

PA-07_zpsd6ab2432— by Ben Turner

State Reps. Brian Sims (Philadelphia), Scott Conklin (Centre) and Tina Davis (Bucks) are introducing a package of three bills to help Pennsylvanian voters:

  • Making it easier to vote: Sims introduced House Bill 1506 which would allow in-person absentee ballot voting before primary and general elections and no-excuse-needed absentee ballot voting by mail. It has been referred to the House State Government Committee.
  • Redistricting reform: Davis and Sims will introduce House Bill 1637 to create an Independent Redistricting Commission, similar to the one recently upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, which has ended partisan gerrymandering in Arizona.
  • Automatic voter registration: Conklin and Sims have introduced a bill (H.B. 1306) to set up automatic voter registration of all eligible people who obtain a Pennsylvania driver’s license or non-driver identification card, with provisions for opting out within 21 days. Similar legislation has already expanded voter rolls in Oregon and California.

[Read more…]

Penn. Voting Technology Enters 21st Century

votePennsylvanians are now able to register to vote online, thanks to the efforts of Governor Tom Wolf’s administration. This is not a misprint!

The process is relatively straightforward, as the diagram to the right shows.

*October 5 is the registration deadline for the November 3, 2015 general election.*

This crucial election will determine not only control of city councils, county commissioners and school boards, but also the all-important Pennsylvania Supreme Court. The upcoming state redistricting will largely determine the balance of control in the state’s legislature and Congressional delegation, and the Pennsylvania Supreme Court will surely be called upon to settle disputes regarding this redistricting just as they have done in the past.

The new online process can be used by individuals registering for the first time, or for individuals who are already registered but have moved, changed their name, or want to change their party affiliation. Pennsylvanians can still use paper forms to register or change their registration info, if they prefer.

To register to vote for the first time in Pennsylvania, a person must be a U.S. citizen and a resident of the Pennsylvania district in which they want to vote for at least one month before the next election. They also must be at least 18 years of age on or before the day of the next primary, special, municipal, or general election.

DNC national director of voter expansion, Pratt Wiley, applauded Governor Wolf’s initiative:

Every day, Americans go online to pay bills, trade stocks, and even adjust the temperature in their homes – there’s no reason why Americans shouldn’t be able to use these tools to register to vote.

Democrats believe our nation and our democracy are stronger when more people participate, not less. That’s why we advocate for commonsense solutions like online voter registration and why we remain committed to ensuring that every eligible voter is able to register, every registered voter is able to vote, and every vote is counted.

Pennsylvania now joins 27 other states currently offering or implementing online voter registration.

Please share this information with others, particularly new residents in your neighborhood and younger people who will be turning 18 this fall. More details are available online.